We caught up with the singer-actor-director to talk swing music, artistic influences and his hilarious role on Happy Days.
Ralph Malph has a killer set of pipes.
Yes, Donny Most, best known for his role as the jokester from the Happy Days gang, can croon with the best of them. Think: Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin.
“I think a lot of people were pretty surprised [to learn I could sing],” he laughs. “Hopefully, in the near future, people won’t be so surprised anymore because it will mean that people have been hearing my albums.”
While Most’s soaring vocals and big band concerts might shock some of his Happy Days fans, it will also undoubtedly leave them impressed.
Forget what you think you know about Most: the wisecracks, the impish grin, the “I still got it!” catchphrase. At 64, Most is returning to his roots and making music again—swing music, to be exact. He rattles off a list of inspirations, from Hoagy Carmichael to Sammy Davis Jr.
“That’s the path I was on when I was young,” he explains. “I was intent on the singing side of things, moreso than the acting. It was only after the summer [of 1967] when I sang professionally in nightclubs [as a 15-year-old] up in the Catskill Mountains that I switched gears. My focus then became acting, but singing is my first love.”
But when the Brooklyn native set aside his musical chops to dive headfirst into the role of Ralph on Happy Days, he wasn’t prepared for the series to become an almost instant classic.
The show, which aired 255 half-hour episodes between 1974 to 1984, chronicled the escapades of Milwaukee teens Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his buddies, Ralph Malph (Don Most), Potsie Webber (Anson Williams) and high school dropout Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler). Set in the mid-1950s, creator Garry Marshall envisioned a feel-good series that would harken back to the idealized vision of life that appeared in Leave It To Beaver-esque shows from back in the day. The gamble paid off: Happy Days went into syndication and remains one of the highest-rated American TV series of all time.
“The show was one of those serendipitous lightning-in-a-bottle sort of things,” Most says. “It was uncanny the chemistry that we all felt almost from the get-go.”
Not only did the series kickstart Most’s career in entertainment, but it also introduced him to Morgan Hart, his wife of 35 years and mother of their two daughters. “[We met] during my final season [on Happy Days] and she had a small guest role,” Most recalls with a chuckle. “I was instantly attracted to her and we started dating. Two years later [in 1982], we got married. She’s an incredible, wonderful thing in my life and I feel so lucky.”
But when Most left the series after seven seasons, he was disappointed to discover that the role that made him famous steadfastly remained front-and-centre in the minds of Hollywood producers. “It’s because I was associated with a show that had become so iconic,” he says. “It was very hard to break away from [Ralph Malph] and I wasn’t getting the roles I wanted to do.”
Despite this, Most boasts a string of TV credits, including recurring appearances on Glee, Star Trek: Voyager, The Love Boat, Baywatch and Murder, She Wrote.
Now, with the recent release of his new swing album, D Most: Mostly Swinging, he’s following through on that boyhood dream he first pursued in 1967 during the professional music revue in the Catskill Mountains. “What singing gives me that I don’t get from acting and directing, is [that] it taps into some sort of visceral feeling inside me,” he says. “I’d love to spread the word more and do a series of albums.”
Yup, he’s still got it!
We caught up with Donny Most to talk swing music, artistic influences and Happy Days.
On calling singing his “first love”…
“[It] allows me to be in more control—I’m picking the material as opposed to when you’re hired to do something as an actor. In this case, I get to pick out the best material that I want to do and work with the musical director that I want. As an actor, there are more variables that come into play.”
On picking songs for his new album, D Most: Mostly Swinging…
“I had one [self-titled] album out in the 1970s which was more pop and wasn’t really the music that I loved. The kind of music that I’m doing now—that I’ve always loved—was out of favour at the time. It was looked upon as passé, as my grandparents’ type of music, although now it’s come back in a very beautiful way with The Great American Songbook. I also came out with a Christmas EP in December  that had four or five songs with a swing and jazz feel. But I’ll always look upon this one, D Most: Mostly Swinging, as my first full album of this type of music. It was a little bit daunting, but also a fun process. The difficulty in choosing songs was that there were so many to consider. So, I went through my iTunes playlist and all the singers I’ve always loved, like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bobby Darin. I probably had it narrowed down to 75 songs, but then I met with my producer and we listened to them together and if something really struck him, he would tell me. That whittled it down to 20-25. From there we just kept chipping away and came away with our top 12.”
On the most challenging song to sing live…
“OK, that’s a great question. Hmm, let me see. I would say…that’s a hard question. (laughs) Well, I close out a lot of my shows with a Bobby Darin number because I’m a big fan of his. I often close with “Mack the Knife” and it’s a challenge because it rises in register by half a key [as the song goes on] and, at the end, there’s a really long note. But [Darin’s songs] have been in my DNA since I was a kid so it may not be as challenging as some other songs. I would say a really tough one to do live is another one that Darin recorded called “Lazy River”, the old Hoagy Carmichael song. I don’t do that one in every show because it’s pretty challenging.”
On why Bobby Darin inspires him…
“That’s a tough one to really objectively define. The first time I remember seeing him was when my mom took my sister and I to see a movie at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was 1961 and the movie was called Come September with Rock Hudson, but it also costarred Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee. I remember there was a scene where Bobby was singing at a nightclub. It wasn’t one of his big hits or a particularly memorable song, but I was kid—only about 11 years old at the time. I remember leaning over and asking my mom who he was. Shortly afterward, I started to notice his albums in stores. The first one I bought was called This Is Darin and I just played it over and over. This was not his rock and roll stuff, this was when he was doing great standard jazz and blues and every song on there was terrific. [But] it was more than his vocal technique that I loved, it was also his personality, emotion and soul coming through. He could swing as good as any of them. Later when I got to see him live at the Copacabana in New York? Oh my God, what an incredible treat. It was a major experience I’ll always remember.”
On the one question he would love to ask Bobby Darin…
(laughs) “The funny thing is, I actually met him once. [There was] a summer concert series in Central Park and I knew he was going to be there so I arrived early and, after his soundcheck rehearsal, I saw him walking down a path and I went up to him and told him I was a fan of his. I was talking about some of his songs, but I don’t think I had a question. Boy, what would I ask him now? I saw, through the course of his shortened career, all the different styles of music that he was able to excel at. A lot of people may not realize that the whole rock and roll phase was a means to an end for him—it was not who he was all about. But I saw him do blues and folk and gospel, on top of the swing that he loved. He had that capacity to bridge almost any genre of music. So I guess I would ask him what his absolute favourite style of music was. There’s an evolution with what he did and I’d be interested in his answer.”
On his fondest memories from the set of Happy Days…
“Let’s see, there are two things that really stand out for me. One is the great camaraderie that we all had, including with our director Jerry Paris because he was there with us on a day-to-day basis more than anyone else on the crew. The other thing that really stood out for me was when we switched from being a one-camera show to a three-camera show, which we shot in front of a live studio audience on Friday nights. The first two seasons were shot like a movie—we did all the scenes out of order, no audience, and that’s the way it was. But when we switched to a live audience we’d rehearse all week and, after those run-throughs, we would do it [in front of executive producer] Garry Marshall. These sessions were so special to me because there was such an incredible creative energy. We would tackle why something wasn’t working and how the writers might come up with a solution. And Garry would say something that would instantly crack us all up. That sort of stuff happened a lot and it was vibrant and exciting to me.”
On how he landed the role of jokester Ralph Malph…
“I [originally] read for the role of Potsie with Garry Marshall and 10 other people in this big room. Then I was called back to do a screen test. What happened was, Ron [Howard] and Anson [Williams] did their screen tests together because they had actually already shot a pilot for the show almost two years before, but it didn’t sell. But then suddenly the 1950s became a hot [commodity] with American Graffiti coming out and Grease hitting Broadway. So ABC went back to Garry and reconsidered the TV show but they wanted to shoot another pilot because they were worried that Ron and Anson might be too old to play high school kids. Garry didn’t agree, but the network made them go through the whole audition process again. There must have been four other Postie and Richie combos that were considered and I was one of them. My agent called me several days later and said the producers were going to go with Ron and Anson—again. But some of the executives and Garry liked my screen test so much that they wanted to put me in the show as a regular. There was a small role in the pilot episode with a character named Ralph Malph. They cast me as that and I was guaranteed 10 out of 13 episodes [that first season]. They didn’t quite create a brand new role for me, but they did turn Ralph into a regular character.”
On what he loved most about playing Ralph Malph…
“Well, he was so different than me. That helps. (laughs) I enjoyed the fact that I got to develop who he was because the writers didn’t know, either. He was into cars and was a little bit of a jock, and it was through the script that I saw he was a bit of a wise-cracker. So there was a bit of finding out more about who he was and helping him evolve and grow. It was a tremendous joy working with our director Jerry Paris. We would improvise things that weren’t necessarily in the script and that allowed me to really discover who Ralph was. He was certainly a fun guy to play because he was so extroverted and boisterous and always thought he was the funniest guy in the room. I was pretty shy and quiet in high school and it would be my friends who were cracking all the jokes and I would be their audience. So, it was fun to play someone so removed from myself.”
On what made the Happy Days cast so tight-knit…
“It’s hard to define. The show was one of those serendipitous lightning-in-a-bottle sort of things. Credit is due to Garry Marshall and the other executive producers for their casting choices. It was like a match made in heaven bringing this group of people together. It was uncanny the chemistry that we all felt almost from the get-go. We worked hard and I think we made it look easy. At the time I think we were looked upon by the industry as a bunch of guys just goofing off and having fun. And yeah, we had fun, but we took it seriously. I think time has bourne that out with regards to the talent—just look at what Ron Howard has gone on to do and Henry Winkler and Tom Bosley, who was a major force [before he died]. And Anson Williams went on to direct more than 300 episodes of television. It wasn’t just a bunch of people goofing off.” (laughs)
On what inspired him to try his hand at directing…
“Since I was younger I’ve always known I wanted to direct. Early on [while filming Happy Days], Ron Howard wanted to have a calling card to prove he could direct so he came to me during the third season and said he had an idea for a story that could be turned into an experimental film. He asked me to play the lead and develop the story with him. We got about halfway through filming when he got an assignment to direct his first film. Jerry Paris was also a huge influence on me, and on all of us—Ron will tell you that he was a major influence for him, too. My first film [Crazy Mama, 1975] was a small Roger Corman film directed by Jonathan Demme, who recently passed away, and it was only his second film. I worked very closely with him. I’ve been exposed to a lot of great directors. I think when I finally decided to do it [in 1999 with The Last Best Sunday], it partially came about because, after leaving Happy Days, the opportunities for me to act became scarce. It’s because I was associated with a show that had become so iconic. It was very hard to break away from that, and although I managed to get some TV and theatre roles, I wasn’t getting the roles I wanted to do and knew that I could do. So, I think that creative frustration led me to try directing earlier than maybe I thought I would. I felt stymied. I directed some theatre first: I directed a play in L.A. and probably did about seven different projects before I tried to get a film made.”
On what’s next for him…
“I’m trying to get more live dates lined up. I’d love to spread the word more and do a series of albums. I very much hope to bring my show into Canada. I’m also motivated now more than ever to take on roles as an actor. I had a part in an independent film, a psychological thriller called Follow , and it really whet my appetite in a great way.”